Months before devastating wildfires caused havoc in California, firefighters from across Europe headed to Sweden as authorities there struggled to extinguish several massive blazes. Sweden is one of the continent’s greenest countries, and officials there eventually got so desperate that they ordered an air force jet to drop a bomb in the middle of the wildfire’s center to deprive the blaze of oxygen.
The strategy failed, and Sweden’s fires continued to rage for weeks. But just a few hundred miles away, in neighboring Finland, officials worried about a far different problem: not enough wildfires. “From nature’s point of view, the diversity of species and habitats suffers from too few fires,” the Finnish Forest Association recently concluded in a report.
In Sweden, officials were stymied by their neighbor’s luck: Weather maps showed that both countries were adversely affected by the same rare, extreme heat this summer.
Viewed from space, the differences appeared especially striking. As all of Finland’s neighboring countries, including Russia, battled massive blazes, the skies over Finland were smoke-free.
But it wasn’t really luck, Finnish researchers soon let everyone know. Instead, Finland has one of the world’s most successful strategies to counter wildfires, and it is now being more closely examined in other nations recently struck by large-scale fires.
Over the weekend, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto was forced to clarify that this strategy does not consist of raking, however. He was contradicting his U.S. counterpart, President Trump, who said Saturday as he was touring California’s wildfire areas that Finnish authorities “spent a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things, and they don’t have any problem.”
“You’ve got to take care of the floors. You know the floors of the forests, it’s very important,” Trump said.
The Finnish president confirmed that he discussed wildfire prevention with Trump, but rejected the suggestion that raking ever came up. The forest service in Finland does carry out controlled burns of the forest floor mostly to clear away underbrush and also promote new saplings.
Researchers aren’t sure whether the country’s approach can really hold any lessons for California, however, given that parts of Finland are located close to the Arctic Circle and have prolonged periods of rain and snow. Whereas below-average precipitation is still the exception in Finland, it has become the new normal in California.
Allowing some burns and clearing away undergrowth are also part of federal forest policy in California. In fact, some of the areas hit in the California fires burned 10 years earlier, so there hadn’t been a major build up of undergrowth.
No, the key factor in California’s vulnerability to fires (and Finland’s resistance) appears to have to do with weather. The two countries are on very different trajectories, as Finnish scientists predict the annual number of days with a wildfire risk to increase by perhaps as little as 10 percent by 2100. According to some estimates, wildfires may burn almost 80 percent more area in California by 2050 than at the moment.
Finland does, however, offer an instructive example to its Nordic neighbors. It has managed to bring down the area annually destroyed by wildfires from sometimes more than 100,000 hectares a century ago to now less than 1 percent of that. That compares to 25,000 hectares lost in Sweden this summer.
“The difference between the two Nordic countries is not explained by vegetation or climate,” Finland’s Forest Association said, “but is believed to be based on differences in infrastructure and forest management.”
Researchers say that Finland has a far denser road network than other nations in the region, which creates barriers to the expansion of the blazes. Lakes and rivers are abundant, too. With many of the California fires happening near population centers now, a lack of roads is probably not the issue.
Perhaps the most striking difference with California is of a historical nature: Northern Europe is greener today than it was 100 years ago, whereas California has lost about half of its big trees. Europe’s medieval and industrial revolution-era need for wood turned former forest areas into grasslands, especially in southern Finland.
When reforestation became a more serious concern, Finland split up future forests into small compartments. One side effect of this was fewer wildfires, as blazes usually don’t spread beyond a single compartment, with borders that are usually marked by wide paths or by trees with different heights.
Although that approach may work in other European countries with similar histories, California is facing a climate-change challenge that it can’t confront itself.
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